The Holidays: Retail’s All-In Season

The skills leaders in this challenged industry will need as these make-or-break shopping weeks begin.

It is just around the corner, the holiday shopping onslaught that gets underway from Black Friday and Cyber Monday through the next six weeks. And for retail leaders, of course, it is a period like no other. 

Estimates vary, but holiday shopping can account for a third or more of some retailers’ annual revenues. Indeed, few industries face as much pressure and scrutiny than now. Sales are tracked by the minute internally—and broadcast weekly for the world. A firm’s entire strategy becomes open season in the analyst world. 

“They’re like athletes who have been preparing for the big game all year long,” says Denise Kramp, Korn Ferry’s senior client partner and North American retail sector leader. “But they’re changing the game plan as they go along. In multichannel [online and offline] retail, they have the opportunity to change the plan in the middle.”

 With the stakes so high, experts say successful senior executives will need to deploy the classic skill sets of agility and resilience. The best ones are typically out in the business and in the field, projecting confidence to the team and looking for opportunities to outmaneuver the competition. 

But the human touch is only part of the leadership game these days. Despite past efforts and improvements, retail watchers say this struggling industry still needs to get a better handle on the critical digital side of the business. That goes beyond having an e-commerce site or using online ads, but finding new ways to harness the power of data.

?“Too often, retailers see digital as an end game,” says Caren Fleit, managing director of Korn Ferry’s Global Marketing Officers practice. “It isn’t—it’s an enabler. It’s the means to an end of getting closer to customers in terms of understanding them and serving them better.”

?This deeper digital dive requires strong executives at the top, focusing their firms beyond just using e-commerce to sell products, digital media to reach customers, and analytics to understand customer behavior and track purchases. Experts call it “digital sustainability”—an enterprise-wide approach that spans multiple areas: talent (having the right people with the right skills); structure (moving away from traditional hierarchies toward a more fluid, integrated organization that can implement decisions quickly); and rewards (to measure and pay for performance based on meaningful benchmarks).

?“Often, the chief marketing officer is the one tasked with digital transformation,” says Fleit. “But it’s a tall order, even for digitally savvy CMOs. And they can’t do it alone.” Especially at this time of the year.